The seven bones of the spinal column in your neck are connected to each other by ligaments and muscles–strong bands of tissue that act like thick rubber bands. A sprain (stretch) or tear can occur in one or more of these soft tissues when a sudden movement, such as a motor vehicle collision or a hard fall, causes the neck to bend to an extreme position (AAOS, 2015).
A person with a neck sprain may experience a wide range of possible symptoms.
- Pain, especially in the back of the neck, that worsens with movement
- Pain that peaks a day or so after the injury, instead of immediately
- Muscle spasms and pain in the upper shoulder
- Headache in the back of the head
- Sore throat
- Increased irritability, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, and difficulty concentrating
- Numbness in the arm or hand
- Neck stiffness or decreased range of motion (side to side, up and down, circular)
- Tingling or weakness in the arms
In a trauma situation, it may be difficult to assess at first evaluation the extent of injuries to the cervical spine. The neck should be immobilized until x-rays are taken and reviewed by a physician. Emergency medical personnel will assume that an unconscious individual has a neck injury and respond accordingly.
At the accident scene, first check vital signs, including the patient’s consciousness, ability to breathe, and heart rate. After these are stabilized, workers will assess obvious bleeding and limb-deforming injuries. Once the trauma team has stabilized all other life-threatening injuries, the doctor can evaluate the injury.
Before moving the patient from the scene, you must immobilize the patient in a cervical (neck) collar and backboard. The trauma team will perform a complete and thorough evaluation in the hospital emergency room.
Neck sprains, like other sprains, will usually heal gradually, given time and appropriate treatment. You may have to wear a soft collar around your neck to help support the head and relieve pressure on the ligaments so they have time to heal.
Pain relievers such as aspirin or ibuprofen can help reduce the pain and any swelling. Muscle relaxants can help ease spasms. You can apply an ice pack for 15 to 30 minutes at a time, several times a day for the first 2 or 3 days after the injury. This will help reduce inflammation and discomfort. Although heat, particularly moist heat, can help loosen cramped muscles, it should not be applied too quickly.
Other treatment options include:
- Massaging the tender area
- Cervical traction
- Aerobic and isometric exercise
For neck pains, strains and sprains caused by posture or body mechanics
- Avoid slouching or a head-forward posture. Sit straight in your chair with your lower back supported, feet flat on the floor, and shoulders relaxed. Don’t sit for long periods without getting up or changing positions. Take short breaks several times an hour to stretch your neck muscles.
- If you work at a computer, adjust the monitor so the top of the screen is at eye level. Use a document holder that puts your work at the same level as the screen.
- If you use the telephone a lot, use a headset or speaker phone. Don’t cradle the phone on your shoulder.
- Adjust the seat of your car to a more upright position that supports your head and lower back. Make sure that you are not reaching for the steering wheel while driving. Your arms should be in a slightly flexed, comfortable position.
- Use proper lifting techniques. Lift with your knees, not your back.
For neck pains, strains, and sprains caused by sleep habits
- Use a pillow that keeps your neck straight. Special neck support pillows called cervical pillows or rolls may relieve neck stress. You can also fold a towel lengthwise into a pad that is 4 in. (10 cm) wide, wrap it around your neck, and pin it in position for good support.
- Don’t sleep on your stomach with your neck twisted or bent.
- If you read in bed, prop up the book so you aren’t using your arms to hold it up and bending your neck forward. Consider using a wedge-shaped pillow to support your arms and keep your neck in a neutral position.
Other prevention tips
- If stress is adding to your neck pain, practice relaxation exercises. Consider getting a massage.
- Strengthen and protect your neck by doing neck exercises once a day.
- Stay at a healthy body weight.